ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A radiation leak at the government's troubled nuclear waste dump has been linked to a waste container shipped from Los Alamos National Laboratory, officials said Friday, raising questions about the safety of other barrels being stored on the lab's northern New Mexico campus and at a temporary site in West Texas.
Lab Director Charlie McMillan, in a memo Friday to lab employees, said Los Alamos "is fully cooperating" with state and federal officials and has taken extra precautions to ensure that similar waste drums at the lab and those sent to Waste Control Specialists in Texas "are in a safe and controlled configuration."
"Based on this," he wrote, "we do not believe there is any imminent threat to the safety of our employees, the public, or the environment at this time."
But watchdog Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque said that until more is known about the breach, "we can't have assurances."
In a statement, the U.S. Department of Energy said pictures from the latest entry into the half-mile deep Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico confirm that a container from Los Alamos has a cracked lid and evidence of heat damage.
Officials last week zeroed in on the containers from Los Alamos, prompting officials to suspend shipments of waste from Los Alamos to the temporary site in West Texas.
Los Alamos is under orders to remove thousands of such barrels of toxic waste from outdoor storage on a mesa. The presence of the waste, and its potential dangers, came to light three summers ago as a massive wildfire lapped at the edge of lab property. The lab had been on target to have the last of the containers shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant by June 30 when the repository was shuttered by the leak Feb. 14 that contaminated 22 workers with low levels of radiation.
Last week, Department of Energy officials said leak was likely caused by a chemical reaction in nuclear waste that was mixed with nitrate salt. Among the possibilities that officials have since confirmed are being studied: a switch in the kitty litter-type substance used to absorb moisture before the containers are sealed and shipped to the nuclear-waste dump.
"While many details remain unknown," McMillan said, "additional investigative work is being planned to pinpoint the cause of the breached drum, the radiological release, and whether other containers were involved in the release. Experts from DOE, WIPP, Los Alamos, and Savannah River National Laboratory are working together to establish the range of possibilities that may have caused this event. "
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is the federal government's only permanent repository for low-level nuclear waste from Los Alamos National Laboratories and other federal facilities. The containers include things like gloves, tools and protective clothing worn by lab workers.
Nine days before the release, a truck hauling salt in the mine caught fire. But officials have said the fire was far from the waste-handling area and that the events were likely unrelated.
Initial investigations into both accidents have blamed them on a slow erosion of the safety culture at the 15-year-old, multibillion-dollar site.